Address: 767 Hampton St, Brighton VIC 3186
Phone: (03) 9592 6684
From a conversation with Nick, Debbie and Philip that has been edited.
(Nick) I moved from Greece to Melbourne when I was 21.
I grew up in a village on the island of Lesvos, and I’d gather ingredients to help my mum cook. From an early age, I developed a passion for food and cooking.
The Australian government sponsored Greek people and l arrived on a big boat in 1954. I got off at the pier in Port Melbourne and was transported to Bonegilla, a former military base that was converted into a migrant camp. People were shifted across the country to do different jobs.
I was sent to Tasmania to work as a labourer, building the hydroelectric dam. I was handed a shovel and told that this was my way to a fortune. I didn’t like what I was doing, and I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’
I left after a few weeks and made my way to Lonsdale St in Melbourne, a place that was full of Greek migrants. Friends took me to where they lived and helped me settle in. After a short time, I got married.
(Debbie) It’s the old story, my parents came with nothing and were grateful for the life they found in Australia
My first full time job in Melbourne was for Astor, a radio corporation in Sturt St, South Melbourne.
I worked there for 3-4 years and met my future wife, Nina, at the job.
Nina’s family were fruiterers, so I left the Astor and started working at her uncle’s store as an apprentice.
After a while, I decided that it was silly to work for somebody else. I asked an agent to show me a fruit shop in Bentleigh but – as we were coming down the Nepean Highway – the agent said, “lets turn into Hampton St.”
I was shown an established fruit shop, I bought it straight away and l moved in with Nina and our first born son Philip soon after.
(Debbie) Nina and Philip were a huge part of the fabric of our business and our life and – even though they have been gone for a long time – they are still with us in so many ways.
Hampton St was very different when we started the business.
It was full of paddocks, sheds and a horse and cart that would sell fruit and vegetables up and down the street.
We used to sell newspapers and comic magazines and the shop was lined with Tarax soft drinks on the shelves. I remember customers – who are in their 60’s now – waiting outside the shop for the new comic book arrivals.
After a while, the landlord decided that he didn’t want to renew the lease for our shop. He wanted to take over the business. I was infuriated, so I bought the land across the road and put up a sign that said, “new fruit shop.”
The landlord became scared – he didn’t know how to run a fruit shop anyway – so he let us stay on.
That land is now a milk-bar and a fish shop.
We sell high-quality fruit and vegetables
But the diversity of produce has changed a lot over the years.
We weren’t eating pomegranates in the 1960s, and we weren’t allowed to buy anything from Queensland. Now, we can get pineapples, avocados and things like that all year round.
And the amount of cauliflowers, peas and beans that we used to sell was unbelievable but, since the supermarkets started selling pre-packaged stuff, we sell less of that. When we started, everyone bought fruit and vegetables from their green-grocer, but that has changed.
The fruiterers also helped each other. If dad was sick, another would go to the market and buy produce for him.
Even now at the market it is like a society.
We help each other.
(Nick) Around Christmas time I get very stressed because it is so busy at Fresh Connection.
It reminds me of what I used to go through.
Refrigeration didn’t exist – I’d keep the produce fresh with a bag of ice – and we served everyone at the shop.
This allowed us to pick the very best produce for customers.
However, it became harder to control, and we became one of the last shops to convert to self-serve.
Now, our customers are mainly locals who have been coming for up to 60 years.
Nina was very social, and everybody was a friend.
She would make Greek coffee, chat about their lives, a lot of that.
Our family lived on top of the shop for thirteen years. It was tiny – and our next house felt like a palace – but we were fine. And, even though we had the fruit shop, we loved to grow our own things. The backyard was full of fruit and vegetables, and we’d give them to special customers and friends.
(Debbie) Dad would get home from the market every day to see if anything needed watering, or to measure what had grown. Like a lot of European people, the garden was a hobby and a pride of joy.
(Nick) We were able to escape the shop through friends, dancing, meals, picnics, a Sunday roast and parties every Saturday night. I still meet with those friends every Saturday for a chat.
We made the most of what we had but – now that shops are always open – it’s harder to make time available.
(Debbie) Dad presented his produce like an artist.
As kids we couldn’t talk to him until 12pm when everything was set up. I remember, as a teenager, everything had to be beautiful.
I was always in the shop growing up: sitting on the step, eating peas, running in and out, getting money from the till to buy lollies at the milk-bar. I knew every customer.
And I love the shop to death now, but it was a bit embarrassing to have dad take us to school in the fruit truck.
I had a bit of an identity problem, as most people did back then.
‘Am I Australian or am I Greek?’
Now l consider myself Australian with amazing Greek heritage.
(Nick) I never thought this would be a family business.
(Debbie) Dad worked so hard, and my parents didn’t want us to go through what they went through.
My brother Theo didn’t want to pursue a career in medicine and, when Nina passed away and the business needed more support, re-entering the business felt like a normal progression for me.
It has worked out wonderfully for both of us but, if we didn’t return to the business, I think Fresh Connection would have shut down. Dad wasn’t with the new age. He’d throw a tea towel over the EFTPOS machine so he didn’t have to use it.
(Nick) I didn’t expect that the business would be around 60 years later.
We kept writing on the cool room wall – in permanent texta – ‘retire, 1985,’ then ‘retire, 1995’ and so on.
(Debbie) There is a big age difference between Theo and I, and we are very different, but we complement each-other.
He’s a bit quieter like dad, and I’m a bit more talkative like my mum. We bring different things to the table and try to respect the space.
I essentially took over Nina’s role; I give people recipes, do the social media and encourage people to come in. My son Philip has digitised the business and Theo’s wife, Abbie, also helped to revitalise Fresh Connection. And, with Theo’s kids, we have a new generation that is growing up around the shop.
I don’t know if people will shop at greengrocers in the future. Shops like us are closing down all the time.
People like the small village communities that Melbourne has but – for them to survive – it requires consumer support.
If you don’t support them, they’ll go.
(Debbie) I see the business remaining in the family.
We’ve been in this space across the road from the original shop for about eight years, and we will move back next year.
It will be bigger than where we are now but – because it is quite narrow – it will still have that boutique, personal feel.
It will be significant for us to be where Fresh Connection started.
We’ll be there for as long as we can.
(Debbie) I still love the work.
I feel like I am in the zone when I come here.
Everything goes away.
It is like therapy.
Written by Aron Lewin with photos by Tatiana C C Scott. Pictures also provided by Debbie.